Yucca workers urged to launch drive to save their jobs

WASHINGTON — Workers at the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain Project in Las Vegas are being urged to launch an e-mail campaign aimed at saving their jobs in light of dwindling budgets threatened by Sen. Harry Reid and the Obama administration.

Fliers were placed on the windshields of cars and trucks at the project’s offices in the Summerlin community of Las Vegas this week.

The fliers, which were not signed, called on workers to enlist their friends and family to write to President Barack Obama and top Nevada leaders, and stressed that de-funding the nuclear waste project “will have a significant adverse impact on the community as a whole.

“There is never a good time to be out of a job, but as you know now is certainly a very bad time,” they said. “This town cannot afford to lose 1,200 or so high paying jobs, the Summerlin area cannot absorb hundreds of additional houses on the market and the vacancy of tens of thousands of square feet of office space.”

The organizers of the e-mail campaign could not be discerned today. Spokesmen for the Department of Energy and Bechtel SAIC, the project’s managing contractor, said those entities were not involved in the effort.

Several workers said today the appeal was indicative of low morale and high anxiety among employees who have been caught in the undertow of the controversial project. The DOE is seeking to build an industrial complex and underground tunnel system to store 77,000 tons of radioactive material.

The population of the Yucca workforce has halved in the past three years, from about 2,750 to 1,400, according to DOE. About 1,120 work in Nevada, with most of the remainder in Washington.

But now the project is under pressure as never before, as the president has declared he is against it and an energized Reid has vowed to kill it outright. On Wednesday, Reid, the Senate majority leader, disclosed that new legislation Congress is expected to pass in the coming weeks will reduce the Yucca budget to a record low of $288.4 million.

Reid has said he expects the federal budget that Obama will unveil next month will contain “little if anything” to keep the program afloat. Over time, staffers on the repository project could join the 128,100 Nevadans that are out of work, according to December’s count.

Lynne Norman, an administrative assistant on the Yucca project who lives in Summerlin, said today project workers are being made to feel like “second-class citizens,” and she feels betrayed by her home-state senator.

“I don’t think what Harry Reid has done is fair to us at all,” said Norman, a 13-year employee who wrote an e-mail to the White House on Thursday. “It is time for people to stand up and fight back.”

While the Yucca Mountain Project long has been a whipping boy in the state, “I know the scientists and their work and I believe in the work that has been done,” Norman said. “The general public doesn’t know the whole story.”

Nevada officials who have strategized against the Yucca project said they are sympathetic but the cause of killing the repository is bigger than the workers, who they said should not be surprised the end finally might be near. Reid on Jan. 14 declared, “Yucca Mountain is not a jobs program.”

“It is unfortunate but when there is a discontinued or dangerous product recalled or taken off the shelf, people lose their jobs,” said Bruce Breslow, who coordinates the state’s official opposition as director of the state Agency for Nuclear Projects.

Adding to the distress on the program is an upcoming management changeover, workers said, as Bechtel SAIC is ending an eight-year tenure as chief operations contractor.

Bechtel SAIC sent federally required layoff warnings to more than 600 workers Monday, reminding them they will no longer be employed as of March 31, when the company’s contract expires.

Normally, most workers simply would be picked up by the incoming management firm. But USA Repository Services reportedly is holding off to learn how much money it might have available.

“People are panicking because the new contractor doesn’t know what to do yet. Everything is on hiatus until the new budgets are released,” said a Bechtel SAIC staffer, a 25-year employee who asked not to be identified for fear it might damage his chances at rehire. He said some colleagues are not waiting to find out, and are departing if they can.

“Killing the dump is the right policy for Nevada and for America,” Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said in a joint statement today. They said the federal Workforce Investment Act can provide retraining and other help for dislocated workers.

“As Yucca continues to die a slow death, we will continue to work with the Department of Labor to ensure that people can find help when they need it,” the senators said.

Most of the state’s leaders say they believe the Energy Department rigged the process, and that the site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas is not safe for the entombment of highly radioactive nuclear waste for thousands of years into the future. But others say the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission should be allowed to judge the Energy Department’s research.

While officials in several rural counties and some Republicans in the state have called for a re-evaluation of the state’s long-held official opposition, polls show the repository still is unpopular among many residents.

Workers were urged to copy their pleas to Reid, Obama, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, state Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, university system chancellor Jim Rogers, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, and Paul Seidler, the Las Vegas representative of the Nuclear Energy Institute trade association.

Keith Rogers of the Review-Journal contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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